It’s tempting to assume that years before rookie NFL kicker/returned missionary Matt Gay booted a record-setting field goal at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, he had imagined that moment a thousand times — maybe even as a little boy.
However, like field goal attempts, assumptions can errantly veer wide.
Instead, Gay’s boyhood dreams involved scoring World Cup goals at iconic soccer stadiums such as England’s Old Trafford.
But thanks to a fortuitous sequence of events, the lifelong Latter-day Saint who kicks like a mule is capturing national headlines with a football instead of, well, a football (aka: a soccer ball).
The 2019 NFL preseason is only half-over, but already Gay has enjoyed some viral video highlights with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In his Aug. 9 NFL debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he split the uprights with a 55-yard field goal — the longest ever in Heinz Field history. A week later, he kicked a 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the game to lift the Bucs to a 16-14 win over the Miami Dolphins.
“It’s been good to get my feet wet in the NFL and experience the environment and atmosphere of an NFL game,” Gay told the Church News. “And obviously, seeing the ball go through the uprights has been a great feeling.”
Gay’s journey from his boyhood home in Orem, Utah, to booting footballs for money in central Florida followed an unconventional route.
For starters, he doesn’t hail from a football family. The Gays are a soccer clan. Several of his older siblings played the game — so young Matt followed suit. If he wasn’t playing in a soccer game or training with his club team, he was usually in his backyard working on free kicks and foot skills.
“Soccer was my No. 1 passion, and soccer was what I wanted to do. Football wasn’t ever really on my mind.”
And he was very good.
The big-footed attacking player competed against some of the top youth players in the country, even securing a spot in the U.S. Soccer National Team Residency program. Almost as an afterthought, he played a single season of football at Orem High School. He was green to the gridiron — but his knack for kicking a ball really, really far was obvious after hitting a 54-yard field goal against Provo High.
Gay’s debut as a college athlete occurred on a soccer pitch. In 2014, he led the Utah Valley University Wolverines in scoring during his freshman season. Then he put his college athletic career on hold to serve a mission to Houston, Texas.
As a missionary, he learned many life lessons that serve him well today.
Full-time missions are tough. The daily life of a young sister or a young elder can be filled with changes, setbacks and discouragements.
For Elder Gay, his obstacle was depression.
“It can put your world into a whirlwind,” said Gay of his own challenges managing mental health. “It’s a day-to-day fight to even get up and get out of bed and do simple things like taking a shower.”
Gay returned home from his mission earlier than he had planned, which added to his stress and frustrations. But he kept moving forward by drawing upon his faith, his family and people who loved him.
Overcoming depression, he added, is an individual process. While millions deal with the illness, no two people’s experiences are exactly alike.
“Some people can deal with it through exercise or changing their diets, while others need medication.”
For Gay, understanding and standing toe-to-toe with his own challenges “was a big moment in my life for me to move forward and get back on the right foot. That has definitely translated to this situation of being in the NFL and being able to cope with tough times. Knowing who I am and what I stand for keeps me grounded in whatever situation I’m in.”
God, he has learned, is always nearby and anxious to deliver. Understanding and relying upon the Atonement of Jesus Christ helps Gay find renewal and hope.
“Jesus suffered what I was suffering,” he said. “Just knowing that He went through what I’ve gone through and being able to go to Him for advice — and help and strength — were really at the core of what got me out of what I was dealing with.”
Gay also appreciates a kind priesthood leader who helped him accept his offering of labor in the mission field.
“When I got home, my stake president told me: ‘You served a full-time mission. God wanted to see that you were willing to sacrifice things like soccer and other worldly things and serve Him.’”
While disappointed his mission didn’t end the way he had planned, Gay said, “God saw that I was willing — and nothing changed the fact that He loved me.”
In 2017, following prayer and discussion with his family, Gay stepped away from college soccer and became a full-time football kicker.
During his two-year tenure at the University of Utah, Ute fans always breathed a bit easier whenever #97 trotted onto the field to attempt a field goal. His consistency and range earned him All-America honors and, in 2017, the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker.
Convinced Gay was their kicker of the future, the Bucs selected the former college walk-on in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Gay is accustomed to kicking in big games. During his Ute years, he competed in bowl games, a Pac-12 championship and, of course, against rival BYU. But kicking in the NFL brings a different level of pressure.
“Now this is my job, it’s work,” he said. “Every day you are in the locker room with guys who are a lot older than you and have families. Everyone depends upon everyone else to care for their own families.”
Gay and his wife, Milli, are preparing for a big change of their own at about the same time the NFL’s regular season kicks off in a couple of weeks. The Gays are expecting a baby boy.
When asked if he plans to give his son a football or a “futbol,” Tampa Bay’s rookie kicker doesn’t need a single second to decide:
“He will be kicking a soccer ball for sure.”